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Updated: Aug 28, 2020

April 6, 2020

I live in northern New Jersey, close to the eye of the storm, which as of today is still New York City. New Jersey is the second-hardest hit state in the nation. Some people in my town, and in surrounding towns like Montclair, Glen Ridge, Verona, and the Oranges, may still be going into Manhattan for work. Montclair, for instance, has six commuter train stations; bus service to mid-town Manhattan is just a block from my house.

So we are getting hard hit. Today New Jersey has 41,090 cases, with 1,003 fatalities. Around my neighborhood, word is that 10 Montclair residents (or maybe 8 or 12) were recently admitted with COVID-19 at Mountainside, the hospital just up the hill from my house. We honestly don’t know from day to day how many people in our immediate environment are infected, have recovered, are hospitalized, are in the ICU, or have died.

Facebook groups representing each town report frequently but the numbers change, sometimes more than once per day, and it’s hard to keep track of. Many of us are starting to see numbers — local, statewide, national, worldwide — without being able to retain them.

There are just so many numbers right now.

Even now, the virus remains something of an abstraction, unless we ourselves are sick or know someone who is. We hear about someone’s son’s teacher, a restaurant owner, a city worker, who is sick or has died, and it feels like it’s coming closer. But many of us have not lost a loved one. We haven’t even lost the loved one of a loved one. Not yet, at least.

Today I heard from a neighbor who said another neighbor had just lost her mother to the virus. I personally haven’t met the neighbor whose mother just died (except once when my cat was missing and I knocked on her door). I never met her mother, but word is she fit the corona profile to a “T”: elderly, pre-existing condition.

What made this particular case stand out for me is the request that came from our neighbor (the daughter of the woman who died): would we stand outside tomorrow when the funeral procession passes?

No one is allowed to attend funerals nowadays. The grieving daughter wanted a funeral for her mom, and this is the closest she’s going to be able to get: a group of neighbors, many of us strangers, standing outside our homes when the hearse passes by.

So that’s what Stephanie and I, and hopefully other neighbors, will be doing at 10 a.m. tomorrow.

Right now the biggest news story in America, besides the virus itself, is PPE for our health care workers. It’s been an issue since early March and it gets more dire by the day.

On April 1, nurses at 15 hospitals in six states protested not just the lack of actual Personal Protective Equipment but the “lack of preparedness” that resulted in health care workers wearing the same masks and gowns day after day. An ICU nurse in Texas named Kim Smith stated,"When we are infected, we become a real danger of infecting everyone else around us, patients, hospital staff, and a risk to our own families” — which surely falls under the heading of things that should not have to be said, right?

In Harlem today, nurses actually gathered in person, rather than via press release, to protest. They also directed their grievance directly to the federal government rather than the HCA, one of the nation’s largest hospital chains, as the nurses did 6 days ago.

That shows two things: how fast things are changing now — and how the problem itself hasn’t changed at all. It was always a federal problem. And it has been not misunderstood, but rather ignored.

Near the end of March, Trump assured the public that medical supply needs were being met. The Hill quoted him saying he ‘knew of people’ who were “making much of this stuff now and much of it’s being delivered now. We’ve also gotten tremendous reviews from a lot of people that can’t believe how fast it’s coming.”

But on March 26, House Democrats sent a letter to the White House demanding proof that it really was coming, because we have been listening to him tell us “it will be OK” from the beginning and it still is not OK. (Nor have the “lot of people” he referred to, who are giving his administration “tremendous reviews,” been heard from… unless by “tremendous” he meant “terrible”.)

The Representatives’ letter urged the administration to “complete and share publicly a comprehensive national assessment and strategy that clarifies our critical medical supply needs and guides their production and allocation in this pandemic crisis.”

As fas as I’ve heard, there has been no assessment, no strategy, no clarification, no guidance and no sharing of information coming out of the Oval Office in response to that request. And in the days that followed, the situation for healthcare workers has worsened.

Protests have taken place among health workers across the country — not just in groups but individually. ER doctors, ICU staff and others have surreptitiously recorded hospital scenes with their phones and sent them to news outlets. Inevitably, the shortage of PPE is addressed in these homemade reports. In California, nurses raised a cry as early as March 25. On April 2, doctors and nurses at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx staged a protest over inadequate PPE, with one doctor saying, “I feel like a sheep being led into slaughter.”

As of today, Trump still hasn’t enacted the Defense Production Act, which was last used during the Korean War. He’s said repeatedly that there’s “no need” for his administration to compel private industry to step in and manufacture necessary supplies — which is the whole purpose of the act. That makes no sense at all. Since Trump is now calling himself a “wartime President,” you’d think now would be a great time to use it again, wouldn’t you?

It just gets surreal after a while. It is like that movie Groundhog Day. We wake up in the morning, turn on the TV and see healthcare workers pleading for PPE. Again. TV hosts question over and over again how this could possibly happen in the richest nation on earth. Experts of all kinds offer ideas: to prolong the use of N95 masks, to put more than one patient on a single ventilator, to petition the government. Do-it-yourselfers propose everything from using snorkel masks making face shields with 3-D printers to homemade breathing machines made from automotive parts. Everyone and their aunt is now sewing face masks out of leftover fabric (my sister made some for Stephanie and me!).

But this doesn't solved the critical problem front-line hospital workers face everyday.

States are now being forced into the position of competing with one another for personal protective equipment (PPE) so hospital workers and first responders can continue to do their jobs. In a voice dripping with contempt, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo called our present situation an “EBay style” market. Even FEMA has been fighting for equipment. On April 1, the Washington Post reported that "The government’s emergency stockpile of respirator masks, gloves and other medical supplies is running low and is nearly exhausted." Inevitably, the vacuum created a “freewheeling global marketplace rife with profiteering and price-gouging.” We hear that face masks which cost 70 cents each two months ago are now going for $7.

The government stockpile, we were just informed by the President's son-in-law Jared Kushner, "is not meant for the states" to use.

Then it’s the next day — today, for instance. I woke up, turned on the TV and saw a tearful physical therapist, exhausted from working 16 hour days since “I can’t remember the date” speaking into a camera about how much they need PPE, and why they need it, as if people still don’t know. As if the government (“that’s our stockpile”) doesn’t know.

And I ask myself how this can possibly be happening in America.

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